February 25, 2015 “ Wednesday in Lent 1, Year Two
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Well, it’s been a little more than three years since I last stood in this pulpit, and it’s good to be
back. It’s been a busy, full three years for both of us. A lot has happened. A lot has changed. But,
for the most part, we’re not too different from the way we were. I’ve learned a few things. I’ve
put back on some of the pounds that I lost before I left, and I’m a little grayer in some places.
But so are you. Still, it’s nice to be back in Montgomery. It’s nice to be back at St. John’s.
One of the things that I have learned over the past three years is a whole new kind of worry. My
four-year-old daughter has become a seven-year-old first-grader. Gone are the days of macaroni
art and tea parties. Now we deal with AR tests and science posters and Are my jeans cool
enough? and Why don’t the other girls like me? When I worked here, I knew that Mike Jarrell
would take care of just about everything, and that, if he needed to call someone about a leaky
roof, it wouldn’t be my cell phone that rang. Well, we don’t have a Mike Jarrell”nobody else
does”and every time there’s a heavy rain I lie in bed wondering whether there will be a puddle
waiting for me at the church in the morning. I worry about people who are dealing with huge
emotional and spiritual problems that are way beyond anything I can handle. They are people I
love and care for but whom I worry won’t be able to hang on much longer. And I worry about
numbers”everything about numbers. How much is going out, and how much is coming in? Will
next year’s stewardship campaign be successful? Why aren’t more people coming to church?
Where are all the young families? What will our future look like? And through it all I worry
more than anything else that there might not be a dead-gum thing I can do about any of it.
I guess you could say that I don’t sleep as well as I used to. What about you? How are you
sleeping these days? Nighttime is a funny thing. Dim lights help hide some of our blemishes, but
the dead of night always brings out our insecurities. There’s something about the silent, stifling
stillness that awakens within us every doubt, every fear, every dread. In the dark, when there is
nothing else to occupy our focus, the little nagging worries have nothing to hide behind.
It isn’t an accident that John tells us that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night. This wasn’t the
kind of conversation that could happen in the daylight. For some people, there are certain issues
that don’t get discussed during the day. Only the nagging restlessness of night had brought
Nicodemus out of his respectable quarters, skulking in the shadows until he found Jesus, the one
he hoped could put his worries to rest.
Rabbi, he said, using a term of respect, We know that you are a teacher who has come from
God; for no one could do the signs that you do unless God were with him… If he had a question
Nicodemus never really got to it. Maybe he didn’t really know what to ask. But it didn’t matter.
Jesus looked at him and said, Truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born
again. (The word translated in some bibles as above is a Greek word that also means again,
and it seems likely that Jesus meant both at the same time.) For Nicodemus, the thought of being
born again was not good news.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, which meant that he commanded the respect
of his people as both a civic figure and a religious expert. If anyone was supposed to be able to
make sense of this upstart Galilean preacher, it was Nicodemus, but, for the life of him, he just
couldn’t figure it out. He had heard reliable reports that Jesus had performed some impressive
miracles”the kind that would prove that Jesus was a man of God worth listening to”but then
Jesus had charged into the temple right in the middle of the Passover celebration and turned over
all of the tables and chased out all of the moneychangers”the kind of profane act which no
godly person would ever do. Nicodemus couldn’t connect the dots, and it was killing him.
If you want to see the kingdom of God, Jesus said, you must be born again. What do you
think of when you hear that phrase born again? It is more than familiar in our Christian
context. It has become overused religious jargon”perhaps even a phrase of derision used by
some mainline Christians to describe their more zealous religious counterparts. But to
Nicodemus, who had never heard that phrase used to describe a religious conversion, those
words were as damning as they were impossible. What do you mean, ˜born again?’ the leader
asked. What am I supposed to do? Crawl back inside my mother’s womb and start all over?
Yes, Jesus said without batting an eye. That’s exactly what I mean”start all over from
We’ve become so familiar with the concept of born again that we’ve forgotten just how radical
that image really is. Think about it: what would you have to give up to be born again? Well,
everything, of course. Your life, your experiences, your education, your status, your job, your
relationships, your family, your heritage, your ancestry, even your name. Everything about you
would be undone. Everything you have, everything that you take for granted, everything that
makes you you, would be taken away as you start all over from birth. That’s the kind of
transformation Jesus is asking Nicodemus to undergo. The reason Nicodemus cannot make sense
of who Jesus is and what his teachings represent is because he’s trying to build upon the lifetime
he has already collected. But the kingdom of God requires a totally fresh perspective. Of course
the religious expert couldn’t figure it out! He’s the last person who would ever be able to see it.
He’s the last person who would ever want to let all of this go and start all over.
And what does that say about us?
Christianity has forgotten what it means to be born again. Being a Christian has become too
easy”especially in a place like this”a place like Montgomery, Alabama”a place where we’ve
been comfortably Christian for so long that we’ve forgotten what it takes to see the kingdom of
God. We are the Pharisees. We are the leaders of our people. Why would we want to give any of
this up? But, if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.
Nine years ago, I knelt right there in that pew next to my wife, Elizabeth, and we prayed silently
for a while. Robert wanted me to work here as the curate, but I didn’t want to come here. I was
still in seminary”even younger and stupider than I am now. So I knelt there and said to
Elizabeth, I don’t want to work here, do I? Look at all of this. Look at all of this stuff. This is
too easy. Ministry is supposed to be hard. This isn’t hard enough. After a moment or two, she
said, Yeah, maybe you’re right, but you know what? You love telling arrogant rich people that
they need Jesus, too.
In the years since then, I’ve forgotten what it means to be born again. It’s easy to do. It happens
to all of us. We get good at what we’re doing, and we start to make a big difference. Numbers go
up. More people come to church. Stewardship starts growing. Budgets increase. New staff
members are hired. Even young families are joining the church. And then what? We convince
ourselves that we are at the center of it all”that it all depends on us. But how long can we keep
it up? How long can it last? And then the worries start.
If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again. Being born again means starting
all over. Being born again means dying to who you are. It means letting go of everything. It
means giving up everything you’ve accomplished”everything that stands for anything”and
starting all over from scratch. If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again